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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sweet Talk: Business Tips from the Bay Area's Best Chocolatiers

Posted By on Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Who said learning wasn't delicious?
  • Who said learning wasn't delicious?
In search of answers and free samples, San Franciscans filled the room at the Commonwealth Club on Monday, eager to hear from a panel of female chocolatiers. Attendees quickly claimed seats adorned with samples from participating businesses, and while no one was harmed during the plunder, passive-aggressive stares were exchanged and choice words muttered.

The moderator, Peggy Butler, runs a blog under the same name of the talk, Success and Chocolate. The event's description focused on women and entrepreneurship, but gender was hardly mentioned during the panel. Instead, questions from an audience made up of both sexes proved that the populace is far more interested in the chocolatiers' business plans.

Zahara Mapes represented TCHO, taking her place next to Wendy Lieu, who started Socola Chocolatier at the age of 19. The surprisingly hilarious NPR impersonation by Kathy Wiley went unappreciated, but the Sesame Toffee Bittersweet Tiles she brought from her company, Poco Dolce, most certainly did not. Ellin Purdom, Director of Social Media at Toffee Talk, rounded out the table.

The first question was submitted by yours truly: Are you profitable? Yes, answered all, but Mapes and Wiley are the only ones who currently work full-time. TCHO has enjoyed financing from the beginning, but the rest of the companies started with miniscule budgets, some no more than $500. Purdom cited benefits as the reason she still works a day job, noting her cousin/partner devotes herself to Toffee Talk full-time. Likewise, Lieu's sister spends all day making chocolates, and sometimes this solitary endeavor leads to creative marketing tactics, including a three part telenovela she wrote, directed, and starred in.

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All four panelist had initially met each other on Twitter, and embrace social media as their primary, and in many cases only, form of marketing. Word -of-mouth proved pivotal for Purdom, who happened to ride a commuter bus with a woman whose sister is the snack buyer at Google. In addition to random acquaintances, family and friends have been immensely helpful in spreading the chocolate word.

Only TCHO sources "mostly" fair-trade chocolate from Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, where they have set up "Flavor Labs," which enable farmers to make small batches of chocolate. The rest of the companies buy all of their chocolate from San Francisco's Guittard Chocolate Company, which has been in operation since 1868.

But how do you account for the surge in premium chocolate, pressed one audience member, no doubt smarting from chocolate bars priced at $10 and up. The public demands quality ingredients, they all replied. Consumers are not only spending more, but experimenting with "flavor profiles." Wiley enjoys pleasing adventurous tasters with new products, including a bar that marries California Olive Oil with a touch of Grey Sea Salt. Lieu brought along Siracha Flying Rooster truffles for the audience.

pocodolce_barsolo.jpg

In the end, most came for basic advice on how to get started. Purdom encouraged neophytes to contact her, and offered strict instruction: "Do not listen to the naysayers." Wiley urged candy makers to test their recipes on friends and family, adapting to their feedback. Lieu was concise, simply saying, "You have to be willing to work hard. Like, until 3 a.m." Mapes recommended a course in chocolate technology, which doubles as a networking opportunity. All four women agreed that apprenticeships are essential.

With that, Butler lightly taped the gavel on the podium.

The Commonwealth Club is located at 595 Market (at Second St.), S.F. For a full list of upcoming events, visit their website.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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Alexis Coe

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